USP Notes: NYT on Fix the Debt, ProPublica on ‘Democratic Grandmas’

Private interests behind a public debate, and the unusual source of some campaign data

As the fiscal cliff debate dragged on late last year, the presence of some deep corporate pockets behind the public push for a “grand bargain” on the federal budget wasn’t exactly a secret. The spate of profiles that appeared soon before Christmas about Maya MacGuineas, the professional budget scold who is face of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, all noted her skill in wooing business backers. (Suzy Khimm’s piece for The Washington Post was even headlined, “Maya MacGuineas’s CEO-powered crusade against the deficit.”)

But until Wednesday, I hadn’t seen a piece in traditional prestige media that really homed in on the interests behind Fix the Debt, how the group’s backers spend their time when they’re not calling for deficit deals, and how their interests might dovetail with the particular flavor of cost-cutting the group tends to favor. So it was great to see Nicholas Confessore’s article, “Public Goals, Private Interests in Debt Campaign,” get prominent play from The New York Times.

The top half of Confessore’s story is largely devoted to establishing the corporate bona fides of the members of Fix the Debt’s board and steering committee. (Update: the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney adds some more detail here.) This part, toward the end, tries to tease out the implications of those relationships:

Those involved with the campaign say they have tried to separate their advocacy for Fix the Debt and their private work for clients. Vic Fazio, a former Democratic congressman from California who is on the campaign’s steering committee, is a lobbyist at Akin Gump, a firm whose clients include KKR, a leading private equity shop, and the Private Equity Growth Capital Council, an industry trade group.

Mr. Fazio said that he and other people involved with the campaign had tried to set aside their parochial interests and had assumed that any grand bargain between Mr. Obama and Congress would include some elements they did not like…

But so far, at least, the companies and industries most closely linked to Fix the Debt have been aggressive in defending their narrower legislative interests.

The fiscal deal preserved the carried interest loophole, eliminated most of a large prospective increase in dividends taxes and preserved a tax break, known as the active financing exception, that allows G.E. and other multinational companies to avoid paying United States taxes on overseas profits.

The deal also forestalled large automatic cuts in military spending, a boon to contractors like Honeywell. The company’s chief executive, David M. Cote, is a co-founder of Fix the Debt; the group’s “core principles,” which call for retrenchment in entitlement programs like Social Security, make no mention of military spending, which constitutes about a fifth of the federal budget.

Good stuff, and well worth your time if you haven’t read it yet.

— After you’ve read Confessore, also check out this similar piece written more than six weeks earlier by The Huffington Post’s Christina Wilkie and Ryan Grim. HuffPost has probably tracked the money and influence behind Fix the Debt and similar groups more assiduously than any other media outlet with a mass audience (see for example this piece by Wilkie and Paul Blumenthal), and in their Nov. 25 article Wilkie and Grim focus on some of the same companies and issues that Confessore wrote about this week.

But one of the virtues of the HuffPost story is that while it emphasizes the particular financial interests of the elite business class, it also briefly captures an important point about the fiscal debate that Slate’s Matthew Yglesias wrote about last month—Important People absolutely despise Social Security, and they see paring it back not as a necessary evil but an affirmative goal. Here are Wilkie and Grim:

But in the past week, in order to make their case to the millions of Americans who don’t work for them, CEOs fanned out into television, to convince the rest of the country that slashing the social safety net is the only way to reduce the deficit.

In an interview aired Monday, Goldman Sachs chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein said Social Security “wasn’t devised to be a system that supported you for a 30 year retirement after a 25-year career.” The key to cutting Social Security, he said, was simply a matter of teaching people to expect less.

“You’re going to have to do something, undoubtedly, to lower people’s expectations of what they’re going to get,” Blankfein told CBS, “the entitlements, and what people think they’re going to get, because you’re not going to get it.”

— When Sam Petulla wrote for CJR in December about the challenges facing the reporters who are trying to understand the inner workings of the Obama campaign’s data-mining program, he spoke to a couple of journalists who are leading the way on that effort, including ProPublica’s Lois Beckett.

Beckett is back now with a must-read story that pulls back the curtain a little more on some decidedly low-tech data-gathering, and also carries a click-inducing headline—“In Minnesota, Democratic Grandmas Gather Data About Their Neighbors.” Here’s the lead:

In Minnesota, Democratic volunteers scour their local newspapers each morning for letters to the editor with a political slant. They pay attention to the names of callers on radio shows. They drive through their neighborhoods and jot down the addresses of campaign lawn signs.

Then they feed the information into a state Democratic Party database that includes nearly every voter in Minnesota.

Some of the states’ few dozen data volunteers are so devoted that they log into the party database daily from their home computers. Deb Pitzrick, 61, of Eden Prairie, convinced a group of her friends to form the “Grandma Brigade.” These women, in their 50s, 60s and 70s, no longer want to knock on doors for the Democrats. Instead, they support the party by gathering public information about other voters.

Beckett’s article includes a judicious discussion about privacy concerns. (The chair of the state’s Democratic party acknowledges modern campaigning is “a little big brother”; one of the leaders of the “Grandma Brigade” counters, “Is it any different than having Best Buy have [this information about] you?”) And it notes a tension that was central to Petulla’s piece for CJR—while the Obama administration and some in Congress are bringing new scrutiny to the commercial data-broker industry, “the administration has been silent on what if any rights voters should have regarding the data gathered about them” by campaigns. But most of all, it’s a great bit of reporting, and an excellent read.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , ,